What I Wish School Had Taught Me about Operating as a Human Being

A pile of purple, green, and black composition notebooks.

More than a decade and a half has passed since I graduated high school, and I still find myself rehashing all the areas that my formal education failed me. Sometimes these realizations come in the form of gentle curiosity after I’ve learned something interesting or useful: “Huh. Why didn’t I learn that in school?” Sometimes they occur with the angry energy of a rant, the kind that happens when I’m out walking and my strides give power to my ideas.

A certain amount of my ire is directed at college, where I didn’t study what I should have, didn’t understand that you’re supposed to be networking and interning, and then made the rookie mistake of graduating in 2008, when the recession hit. But I can say, at least, that when I signed up for a college course about a given subject, I went to class and learned about that subject. This is not so for my K-12 education, which was marked by excessive repetition, lack of choice, and a deficiency of skills that I would later find I needed.

Here are the skills I wish school had taught me, in approximate order of how bitter I am about them, going from “why didn’t school bother to tell me this?” to “wow, not knowing this kind of fucked up my life.”

How to learn new skills

Schools can’t teach every single thing you’re going to need to know in your life. Even better curricula than we have now can’t anticipate every possible way your life could go. But they could at least assume you’ll have to learn new skills at some point.

I learned about flashcards and mnemonic devices in school, but not every skill or subject benefits from rote memorization. As an adult, I’ve almost never used those techniques.

Schools should help students find answers to the following questions:

  • If you have a brand new subject, how do you approach it?
  • What are different learning tactics you could try?
  • What are different learning styles that people gravitate to?
  • How do you identify your weak areas and improve them?

Organizational skills

When I was a kid, I thought that organization meant using a five-subject notebook and occasionally rearranging the contents of my desk and backpack. I thought it meant shoving the infinitely-tentacled monster that is Your Mess into rows of 12x12x12 color-coded storage cubes with neat labels. Like the author of this article, this is what I learned from the Berenstain Bears.

In reality, organization means having the things you need and use in the places where you’ll actually use them, without having to spend forever searching. It means knowing what tasks you have before you, and why you have to do them.

Organizational skills are survival skills. I only learned them because I needed to organize writing notes, but when I finally ended up in an office job situation, they started helping me immediately.

Labor laws

A good friend recently emailed the HR department of his company to inform them that a supervisor had told workers they would be fired if they discussed their wages with one another. He told HR that he hoped it was a misunderstanding because of course, it’s illegal to forbid workers from discussing wages. That kind of environment encourages wage gaps and inequality.*

The friend who called out this supervisor was someone with a college degree working at a blue-collar job, and suspected that this was an intentional move to exploit less-educated people.

But every person in that room should’ve been in a position to call out the supervisor. Better yet, these rights should be so well-known that the supervisor would have never said anything in the first place. This is something that should be on the same level as “don’t run red lights” and “the earth is round.” Everyone knows these things, and we take it for granted that others know these things too. (Flat earthers, exit left.)

Ostensibly, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the workforce. To put them through school without any kind of grounding in what their rights will be as workers is to set them up to be exploited.

Budgeting

So-called smart kids** took algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. “Dumb kids” took remedial math classes and learned functional budgeting skills.

Is the logic there that the smart kids would end up with middle-class jobs and have enough money to burn that they wouldn’t need to budget?

Learning to budget is more about prioritizing, organizing, and making decisions than it is about actual math. And honestly? Knowing yourself well enough to prioritize what’s important is way fucking harder than math.

Here’s another benefit of learning to budget in school: if everyone knows the basics, no one can write any more budgeting articles that open with supposedly eye-opening math that shows us all how much our daily lattes cost.

Because we all, apparently, buy daily lattes. Whose life is this?

Critical thinking

The art of aggressively asking why, critical thinking involves poking ideas with a stick until assumptions fly out like bees. 

It isn’t only for academia; it’s for everything. It’s a skill I learned in tandem from college and from my partner, who was ahead of me on thinking skills when we were teenagers.

As with sex, we should all be asking if we want our daughters to pick it up on the street from their boyfriends, or if we should teach it in schools and make sure they have the correct information. Right? Uh…

Best to teach it as early as possible because it unlocks the ability to learn other skills better and to come to a deeper understanding of everything we read.

You can have no science without it. You can’t analyze a piece of literature. You can’t learn history in any meaningful way, or apply what you learn to what’s going on in the world today with questions like “Do conditions in the United States today resemble Germany in the 1930s?”

Without critical thinking, you end up with flat earthers. (Hey guys! You still here? Awkward…)

You can apply critical thinking skills to everything else on this list. You can apply it to products being advertised to you and people with suspicious motives. Critical thinking allows you to improve all different areas of your life and helps you to make better choices.

Writing process

Another thing you can’t do without critical thinking?

You can’t write. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. If you’re writing without thinking, all you’re doing is regurgitating.

No wonder writing those first school essays and book reports is so agonizing. Children are instructed to use roman numerals to outline thoughts they’ve been taught not to have. 

I earned a C for one quarter of high school English because the entire grade was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t yet know how to turn my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter–“I fucking hated this book, and although I’m anti-book-burning, I’ll turn the other way if you light that match”–into the form of writing.

Only one teacher ever taught me the nuts and bolts of working through several drafts, improving first the story structure, then drilling down to the line level, and then editing. Even in college, this isn’t something that was taught.

And I have a degree in writing.

We didn’t learn about drafting fast and messy to find the heart of what you’re saying. How to change focus if you need to. How to choose a thesis sentence. How to adjust your topic to a particular length, which is something I’m working on right now–I wrote 300 words under this writing heading in first draft, only to delete them and add another 300 words that support my point better.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Movement

By movement, I mean some combination of formal anatomy instruction and a pragmatic understanding of how your body works. I don’t need to remember the name of the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) to understand how it interacts with my foot muscles.

While critical thinking necessitates that I despise the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I went through exactly the kind of experience that compels people to say that. At age 28, I had two severe back spasms. My mom had to pick me up from work, and the drive home on smooth, well-paved roads sent branches of excruciating pain into my lower back. After being dropped off, I spent 45 minutes kneeling over a chair because I couldn’t handle movement.

I spent much of the next few years in a state of desperation and confusion, binge-reading online about any stretches that might help fix my back. Eventually, doing all those stretches, observing their effects, and learning more about my anatomy led to a muscle-level understanding of how my body works.

My last back spasm was two-and-a-half years ago. 

As much as I hated gym class volleyball with all the fiery apathy of a true geek, I can look back and see it as an under-utilized opportunity to teach something important.

Drawing

Just as the smart kids are filtered out and sent to trigonometry, so too are the artistically-inclined picked out. Only in this case, instead of being sent to a different math class, the non-artists are pulled from art classes altogether.

Art and writing suffer from the same fallacy: that you can do them if you’re naturally talented, but there’s no sense bothering otherwise. The idea that drawing or any other skill comes from talent rather than focused learning and practice serves only to disempower people who would otherwise love to do those things and would probably benefit from them.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Drawing is seeing.

I taught myself to draw, which means I taught myself to observe.

In the capitalist paradigm, perception of value comes solely from a skillfully executed, salable product rather than from the process itself. But when the process of writing is thinking, and the process of drawing is seeing, how can anyone say that’s worthless?

Social skills

One of the arguments that I always hear in favor of sending children to school (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling them) is that children need proper socialization, a term which is both unquestioned and ill-defined. Nothing about my experiences in school taught useful social skills, unless keeping your head down and praying you’re in a class with your friends count as social skills.

The way we teach social skills to children is like throwing them into a pit of venomous snakes to help them learn how to suck the poison out of wounds. You have victims and bullies, all of them traumatized on some level. None of them know how to act.

When you grow up and get a job, you’re going to be interacting with other adults, ones who are hopefully long past the ruthless little psychopath stage. A professional environment has certain behaviors that are expected, and there’s no reason why kids can’t be told what they are upfront. Plus, none of the skills I wrote about above affect your ability to land a job—it’s down to networking.

Learning social skills by osmosis is easier for some people than others. If we’re even going to use the term “social skills,” why not treat them as though they can be learned? When you don’t teach them, you end up with thirty-four-year-olds who still don’t understand how making eye contact works. And thanks to smartphones, the need to explicitly teach these skills has only become more acute.

Mental health awareness

Years ago, I was in a Job Lot with my partner, and a commercial for antidepressants came on. I said something like, “Maybe if you’re depressed, the problem is that you’re a loser.”

Ouch.

What the fuck, right? Who says that?

If I heard someone say that now, I’d want to smack them with a sack of discount aquarium pebbles. I winced writing it both because of how harsh it is and how much it reveals about my mental state at the time. It’s like travelling to the past and staring directly into my own brain.

I said that in 2008 or 2009, when I was unemployed after college, and the most depressed I’ve been in my life. And I had no idea because I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2012, and I didn’t start reading about mental health until after my diagnosis.

What would my life have been if I had gone through a routine screening? What would my life have been if I’d known about my mental health issues when I was seventeen instead of twenty-seven? What if my parents had known that I wasn’t just a quiet kid, but that I had severe social anxiety and needed extra help approaching people or making phone calls?

I’ve lost a lot of time.

Ideally, children would be screened for mental health problems from a young age. But let’s say that’s not happening in a medical setting, for any number of reasons. After all, if the education system in the United States is a mixed-up Rubik’s cube, the medical establishment is one that has been smashed with a hammer. And let’s say schools don’t have the budget to offer screenings to every kid.

At the least, wouldn’t it be nice if a middle or high school health class dedicated a little time to mental health issues? Even a month, a week, or a day would be better than nothing. At the least, wouldn’t it be better to give kids the information to recognize when they need to get more help?


Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure what the purpose of school is, and I don’t think school knows either. Is it to help students grow up and find better jobs? If so, where are the practical on-the-job skills? Is it to brainwash mindless cogs-in-the-machine? If so, why bother with literature and art? Is it to create better citizens or to bestow the kind of liberal arts education that was once the province of only the rich?

In lieu of struggling with these questions purposefully, I see reactive additions and subtractions to school curricula. They come without question of what the ultimate goal should be.

We need more technology! Buy computers.

We can’t afford things on our anemic budget! Cut art.

My negative experiences in school are a huge reason why I aim to homeschool my own child, and to consider even that option with a critical eye. Half the skills I write about in this post combine into a single way of looking at the world, one which involves seeking new input, processing, and thinking. The other half falls into self-protective skills for navigating the world. Together, they give me a starting point for finding the skills I need to pass on, whether or not I am ultimately the one in the position of teaching them. Rather than use my own deficient experiences to form a reactive plan for my child, I’ll ask better questions myself, and make my plan from their answers.

That goes for me and all my future learning as well.


*Side note: we’re in America where everyone is touchy about money and we’re all supposed to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Not that many people discuss their wages anyway.

**Smart doesn’t mean smart. Smart means college-bound, due to a variety of factors that don’t always have anything to do with intelligence.


Small Town Social Media and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

Sometimes I look at posts on my town’s Facebook group, and I don’t think that the events of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” are so far-fetched. There’s an incredible amount of aggression and tribalism; people are willing to figuratively stone each other for benign opinions about local restaurants. Once, my partner witnessed an argument turn into a demand to “Come fight me at the Santa Parade.”

sunset with stormclouds and pink light
Just a regular, not-at-all-forboding sunset in a small New England town.


Thinking about this was what inspired me to reread this story just now for the first time since eighth grade. Knowing where it’s going doesn’t diminish the impact, but rather makes it ever more horrifying and tense. It kills me that the woman who dies is late to the lottery because she didn’t want to leave dishes in the sink.

But what makes The Lottery such a memorable, chilling story isn’t any aggression displayed by the characters. It’s the matter-of-factness with which they band together and commit murder, then go home and go about their days. An enormous portion of the story is dedicated simply to the clerical and organizational problems of conducting the whole affair.

“…the whole lottery took only about two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.”

Shirley Jackson, The Lottery

No one is saying, “This is cruel.”

No one is saying, “This is insane.”

No is is saying, “Summon up a teaspoon of empathy for another human being, and don’t act like this.”

That goes for the characters in The Lottery, and for a lot of people on a lot of towns’ Facebook groups.


When I looked up “The Lottery,” I also came across a Mental Floss article of facts about this story. My favorite part was Jackson’s parents’ reaction to the story:

“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”“Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”

Shirley Jackson’s mother, as quoted in 11 Facts of About Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in Mental Floss

I love this. Timeless. Almost seventy years later, I had the same reaction from my mom about the story Banshee in Spirit Notes Fading.

It’s both comforting and depressing to see that people in other times were more or less like us.


Here’s one of the last parts of Stars Fall Out that I wrote in November. I didn’t finish my ending, as I had hoped, but I did complete 25 scenes, which was my other goal. This deals with the mechanics of a magic vial that’s one of the most important magical advances in hundreds of years and that the main character steals and essentially uses as an addictive escape from her own life.

This time, as it fizzed and hissed and transformed the water, I focused. Just as I brought my mind back under this bridge when I needed to come home, so did I send it out. I flung my thoughts out to the farthest reaches of the empire, to farther places than that, even. I thought of mountains too tall to exist here, plants too exotic, bridges too magnificent. I thought of maps unrolled before me, not Pinuar’s maps of the city, but maps that stopped for no road and went on and on.

I took my sip of water, and I imagined it pulling me to all those places.

Then I waded in, and wished one last time for the water to whisk me out of my trap.

When I came up again, a miniature wooden statue of She-the-Sailor stared me down from on top of a nearby dock piled with weathered rope. Once, I had come across a She-the-Sailor statue in a far-off place. Nothing about this tightly-packed clutter of ramshackle seaside cottages hinted at far-off places. Nothing about the chill or the salt tang in the air hinted of far-off places either.

I’d been breathing them in all day. All week. All month.

My entire life.

The Judgmental Advice Column: Friends and Movie References

Dear Judgmental Advice Column,

I have a friend who hasn’t seen as many movies as I have and doesn’t watch everything I watch on Netflix. We get along great otherwise, but they don’t get my references.

I feel like I’m always explaining things like who Pauly Shore is and which Ghostbusters movie had the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Usually, I have to clarify that it is not, in fact, “the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man or something.”

As extreme as it sounds, this person hasn’t even seen every single sitcom of the eighties and nineties.

The mental exhaustion of this is taking its toll in every area of my life, as unlikely as that may seem.

Please help, Judgmental Advice Column.

Sincerely,
Baffled Buff

We can’t cross every bridge together, though we may try. Some bridges are meant for trains and not humans.

Dear Buff,

At times like this, it’s worth nothing that we all have our differences. If all our friends were exactly like us, what would be the point of having friends? Our beauty is in our diversity.

That said, there’s something you need to remember:

If someone hasn’t seen a movie that you like, it says everything about them as a person.

I used to have a friend–let’s call him Ted, which is also Ted Bundy’s first name–who enjoyed the 90s sitcom Step by Step, but didn’t know that Suzanne Somers was in Three’s Company many years before. As you can imagine, this was a horrifying and difficult situation to be in.

I was younger then, and didn’t handle the situation well. It’s still embarrassing to admit that I told him, “You should check out Three’s Company sometime. It’s a classic.” I wince writing this, thinking of how I said nothing to speak out against Ted’s cultural ignorance.

So, here’s my advice to you, Buff:

Don’t listen to this person’s flimsy excuses about not having time or money. Don’t let them fool you with some claptrap about “reading books” or “going hiking with my brother.”

Ask yourself, if the situation were reversed, would you let them say those things to you?

Remember that age is a common excuse for people like this. Only you can say how much leeway you can give this person for having been born ten years before or after you, or for not having lived through the exact circumstances that led you to see each and every movie you’ve seen.

If they haven’t seen that show you always forget you already told them about, remind them that it’s on Netflix. If Netflix has removed the show from their catalog, that is a regret they will have to live with the rest of their life. In this case, you could show them compassion.

But if they say they “still haven’t seen” A Very Important Movie, well, why not? Ask. It might be difficult, but you need to be the one to bring this issue to the light.

Another thing to consider, Buff, is that communication and respect are the foundations of all relationships. You can’t respect someone who uses the wrong preposition when quoting a movie.

You need to correct their misquotes, and let them know that this behavior is not ok with you.

But ultimately? This speaks to the sort of person who can’t be bothered to memorize an entire movie, absorb all the trivia from its IMDB page, and then watch every single other movie that those actors had even a two-second cameo in.

You can do better, Buff. You say this person is your friend, but you shouldn’t have to debase yourself by explaining your references to tertiary characters in Punky Brewster like some kind of animal.

I can’t say if they are beyond redemption–that falls to you alone. But if this person doesn’t remember the names of all the actors who played the Brady Bunch kids…

If they’re incapable of even distinguishing the Ninja Turtles from one another after having only watched the show sometime last century, as if telling apart identical cartoon turtles named after Italian painters isn’t something we all have to do every day…

You may need to think about what, exactly, your common ground is with this person.

You may need to excise them from your life.

You can always replace a friend the way Suzanne Somers was replaced on Three’s Company.

Best of luck, Buff.

Your friend,
Judgmental Advice Column

Nine reasons to cut your own hair (besides saving money)

Haircutting shears, thinning shears, haircutting razor, comb

I perpetrated my first DIY haircut one night in my college dorm, in the grubby common bathroom. Some kind of hair-demon possessed me and whipped me into a frenzy that would not allow me to sleep or focus on anything else until I had less hair on my head. Instead of putting off the haircut until a more convenient time, making an appointment, or at least doing a quick internet search to learn what to do, I grabbed some hair from the center of my head, pulled it out to my nose, and chopped it off with what I assume were not actual haircutting scissors.

Only then, I realized my mistake and took to the internet. I forget if I Googled, or LiveJournaled, or possibly even went on AOL Instant Messenger, which hung on with the strength of the undead for many years after AOL itself became a clownish relic of the 90s. All I remember is that I told my friend Bonnie about the weird little hair-fangs hanging down my forehead, and Bonnie said, “Come over. I can fix it.”

This was accomplished with a great deal of mediocre pizza.

The lesson I took from my screw-up wasn’t that I should be patient and let a professional take care of things for me: it was that I should learn the skills Bonnie had.

I’ve now been cutting my own hair for fourteen years, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. My worst mistakes now have nothing on the hair-fangs of 2005.

People often cite money as a reason to cut your own hair. Do the math! Think of how much money you’ll save! Money has been a motivating factor for me, but after years of DIY haircuts, I’ve found other reasons as well. Here are a few to consider:

You are not a telepath.

How many people have a story about asking the stylist to “just take off an inch” and ending up with a drastic haircut? You can describe something to a stylist in detail, and you can bring pictures, but it’s hard not to lose something in translation. This happens even with pictures because a haircut on someone else must be translated to your own hair and head shape.

I’ve gotten more accurate with my descriptions since I started cutting my own hair. The last time I had a professional haircut, three years ago, I described what I wanted so well that I was disappointed: she gave me the exact cut I would’ve given myself at home.

You have long hair.

If you have long hair, you also have large margin of error. I might be biased (as a short hair person since the age of twelve), but I don’t see much point to hair more than half a foot past your shoulders. Nothing after that is going to change how you look. The hair around your face has more impact than ends trailing down your mid-back to your butt.

Every inch of hair you have beyond that “just past the shoulders” point adds to your margin of error. Unless you truly love the feeling of a ponytail long enough to tie your shoes with, consider the extra length to be breathing room.

Or an easy haircut.

Again, this applies to long hair, or at least long hair cut to a single length, no bangs, no layers. It also applies to a straightforward buzzcut. If you have an easy haircut, why not give it a shot?

Be a fearless badass.

Fearlessness liberates you, and cutting your own hair is a safe way to practice it. I’ve heard people who jumped out of a plane say how exhilarated and free they felt after finally doing it.

That’s nice. I’m still not jumping out of a plane.

I have a number of anxiety problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. I overthink everything. I don’t need my hair to be yet another area of my life that’s ruled by anxiety. Eff that noise–if I find myself over-worrying about my hair, I chop it off.

Satiate the hair madness immediately.

Even if you don’t cut your own hair on a regular basis, if you learn how to, it’s always an option that’s available. Such as if you are possessed by the same hair madness I had that night in college and need to cut your hair immediately in the middle of the night.

Cut your hair in stealth.

Last year, I decided to go back to a pixie cut. I had grown out my previous pixie into an undercut with a long top–too long, falling onto my shoulders. In pictures, I don’t look like myself. The hair demon, it turns out, was part of me all along. Twist!

I didn’t want the “You cut your hair!” attention that a sudden, drastic haircut brings, so I decided I would cut little bits at a time and stretch the haircut out over several months. Usually, this meant setting a timer for three to five minutes, and cutting off just a bit before taking a shower.

Only three or four people noticed until I made it past the one-year mark, made a mistake, and buzzed off a bunch to even it out.

Part of the reason I did this was also as a learning experience. I hoped that by cutting less at a time, I might better learn how to deal with some of the awkward, in-between lengths. The stealth haircut (also known as the slow haircut) worked out well in that regard too.

I learned that if you only cut a small section at a time and don’t like the result, it’s easy to see where you went wrong.

Express yourself.

If you wake up one morning and you’re not in a “having this stupid lock of hair on the side of my head” kind of mood, you can snip that thing off. When you cut your own hair, your haircut is more directly tied to your self-expression. Hair becomes another art form to explore. Your haircut can be a reaction to how you’re feeling. You can put away parts of your personality and bring other ones up front for awhile.

Avoid small talk.

Are you too awkward to have a stranger cut your hair? That’s been my experience for most of my life. Cut your hair by yourself, cut the small talk.

Then you can free the rambling, singing deranged person you keep under that awkward exterior.

Increase your independence.

Despite the fear so many people have, cutting your own hair is like anything else where you have the option of calling a professional versus doing it yourself. I’ve changed my own oil, jumped a battery, and replaced my car’s door handle with some help from youtube.

If I wanted, I could do all my own oil changes myself. But I have a small, low car, and it’s a hassle to get under there. Also, considering the cost of oil itself, I’m not saving an enormous amount of money by passing that job off to someone else.

And ultimately, even after learning all the benefits of cutting my own hair, I’m more clear on when it makes sense to call a professional. Sometimes, you want to take advantage of how much easier it is for someone else to blend the hair on the back of your head. Maybe you like having your scalp touched. Maybe you want to get the fuck out of your apartment. Maybe you’ve calculated how many hours of your life it costs to make the money to get the haircut, and the haircut makes you happy enough that you don’t care. Or you hate cutting your own hair the same way many people hate vacuuming, and you especially hate cleaning hair scraps out of the bathroom sink.

For many years, my treat to myself on my birthday was a professional haircut.

There’s an attitude many people have that cutting your own hair is basically the equivalent of a sloppy chainsaw murder, especially if you’re a woman and your hair is supposed to be your crowning glory. I don’t like the assumption that you shouldn’t cut your own hair because you’ll fuck it up, and that you need to hand the job over to someone who’s had the proper training because under no circumstances should you ever set foot outside with a less than perfect haircut.

Even worse is the assumption that you can never learn to cut your own hair; hairstylists are not human beings who attend schools, start out knowing nothing, and learn through reading and practice. They’re, like, mythical spirits of hair, and you can never learn to do what they do.

Those attitudes are willfully disempowering people.

Instead of looking at DIY haircuts with fear, it should be seen as another area where we have a choice. There’s a world of difference between choosing to call a professional, and being helpless to do anything but call a professional.

https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2016/04/web-developer-guide-color/

Since redesigning my site is one of my back-burner projects, I’ve procrastinated by reading an unnecessary amount of articles about color schemes and color theory. So many articles about color in web design focus on color psychology, and in essence try to pass broad principles off as nuts-and-bolts advice. The above link is a practical guide.